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The Magna Carta, that "Great Charter" which first codified fundamental rights such as due process, speedy trials and trial by jury, turns 800 this Monday. The document, which helped settle a dispute between the English monarchy and rebelling nobility in 1215, gave rise to modern rule of law, constitutions and at least one royal beheading.
What better way to celebrate the Magna Carta's 800 years than with 800 American lawyers? And no, they won't be the victims of human sacrifice on the fields of Runnymede, they'll just be attending a conference -- a very historical conference.
Also called the Magna Carta Libertatum, or the Great Charter of the Liberties, the ancient document was signed by King John of England on June 15th, 2015, as a peace deal between unpopular King John and England's rebel barons. It's one of the first written documents to curtail the rights of both the monarchy and nobility and establish clear legal protections, introducing legal concepts such as habeas corpus, which still remain with us today. (It's less popular sister charter, the Carta de Foresta, also established public access to royal forests, a right the wandering English still enjoy today.)
The Magna Carta has had a celebrated history. In establishing inviolate rights, it presaged the American Constitution's supremacy clause, invalidating any contradicting statutes or practices. It helped inspire the Glorious Revolution, which resulted in the supremacy of the English Parliament, and the English Civil War, which took the head of King Charles I. The Founding Fathers viewed it as a template for the United States Constitution and Occupy protesters in London invoked section 29 to oppose their eviction from public land.
Surprisingly, it seems American lawyers enjoy celebrating the "ancient liberties" more than their English counterparts. The only monument celebrating the charter in Runnymede was established by the American Bar Association in 1957, when the document was just a wee 742 years old.
For its octocentennial celebration, the 800 American lawyers are joining the ABA for a week long conference that began yesterday and will last through the next week. It will include a review the original charter and its four subsequent versions and, we're sure, feature a historical reenactment or two. If you can't make it to London for the ABA's jousting fest, the organization has also thrown up a virtual temple to the Magna Carta with the new Icon of Liberty webpage.
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